Military was in the process of negotiating disposal of ammunition stocks when incident occurred
From Sunday Leader - by Camelia Nathaniel
Military sources say, had the entire stock of ammunition previously stored at the Salawa ammunition been there at the time of the blast, the damage to life and property caused by the blast would have been unprecedented.
Prior to the incident, almost one third of the ammunition stocks at Salawa had been transferred to the Veyangoda armoury. The fire is believed to have started near the log commander’s office at the small armoury, and once the fire had engulfed that building, there was no chance of containing it and it had spread exploding the ammunitions. Around 20 fire engines of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Fire Brigade had rushed to the area, but the explosions prevented them from getting anywhere near the scene to douse the fire.
With this incident, many theories were expressed, and one of them was that officers without specialised training have been deployed to manage the sub ammunition dump of the Salawa Army Camp in Kosgama.
However, speaking to The Sunday Leader, a very senior military official denied the allegations that proper measures were not taken and that the lack or absence of trained and qualified personnel in handling of explosives was one of the factors that might have led to the incident.
“It is a false conception that there were unqualified personnel at the camp. There is Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that has to be followed at every camp. There are many versions being spread, but none can determine the cause of the fire until the investigations are carried out,” said the official.
Army Commander Lieutenant General Chrishantha de Silva had taken steps to appoint a Court of Inquiry on a directive of the National Security Council to ascertain the cause.
Meanwhile, military Spokesman Brigadier Jayanath Jayaweera said in a statement that a parallel investigation by the CID too had commenced.
According to information obtained by The Sunday Leader, after assuming office in February last year, the Army Commander had made it a priority to examine all the stocks of ammunition in the Army. Having examined, he had asked the officers if they were crazy to retain such large stocks of nearly outdated ammunition.
Then the Army Commander had met the Secretary of Defence at that time, Mr. Basnayake, and told him that they needed to dispose of the ammunition quickly, and the Defence Secretary had asked him what he had in mind. The Commander had then told him to send it back to the same people who had sold it to them, even at half price. The Defence Secretary was baffled and had asked the Commander if that was even possible. In response the Commander had said that they needed to make it possible as they could not keep these weapons being a small country with limited space to dispose of these weapons.
The Commander had then written to the Ministry of Defence and his first letter was sent on May 14, 2015. Most of the ammunition had been purchased in 2006-2007 and maintained. But in the letter written by the current Commander to the MoD, he had explained that most of the ammunition was about to expire and that the Army did not have the stipulated facilities to store them. He had also emphasised the importance of addressing this issue right away. Unfortunately, this incident took place before the issue was settled. According to the very senior army officer, this problem should have been addressed much earlier as the government had six years after the war to dispose of these outdated stocks. He said that although the current Commander had taken all measures possible to address this problem, but he did not have enough time to complete the actions that he had commenced.
After receiving the Army Commander’s letter, the Defence Secretary had agreed and asked the Commander to give him a cost of the items. The Commander had then done the costing and sent it to the Defence Secretary and wanted to get Lanka Logistics to negotiate. One of the groups that came to inspect the stock of weapons was Norinco. The China North Industries Corporation, officially known in English as Norinco, is a State-run conglomerate best known for producing and exporting firearms and other types of ordnance, and is largest weapons manufacturer in China, and they supplied bulk of the weapons for the Sri Lanka Army. They had then visited the Army Commander and wanted to go around and have a look at the weapons. This whole process had taken around six months. However, according to military sources, this is something that should have been done soon after the war ended in 2009.
However, Cabinet approval for the disposing of the stocks was given in April this year, and the military was negotiating with Norinco to send the stocks of almost out-dated ammunition, when this incident occurred.
“The war ended in 2009, and the previous regime had not taken any measures to dispose of the excess ammunitions or shift the facility. The outdated ones and the excess should have been disposed of right after the war, perhaps in 2010 or 2011. We do not use now some of the ammunition in stock which are about to expire. Authorities should have looked at these issues properly,” added the army official.
Explaining the chain of command deployed at these armouries, the senior official said that there is a commandant for the central arms and ammunition depot, and he is in charge of all these ammunition dumps.
“We place various personnel under him, he is a qualified man. He is answerable to the Director Ordinance Services, who is a fully qualified brigadier and trained Ammunition Technical Officer (ATO), involved in all aspects of the use of ammunition in the army. This includes disposing bombs, investigating explosions, procuring, managing services, storage, inspections and repairs. In addition, the commander of that area controls the security measures in place. So, one cannot claim that there are no qualified people at the facility. The ammunition dump at Salawa was also under the commandant of the central arms and ammunition depot. These facilities are properly managed and there are standing orders and drill practices that have to be followed in an emergency which army personnel practised daily. The casualty figures would have been much higher had these practices not carried out daily.
“Within 45 minutes, the Commander had also arrived at the scene. However, soldiers had carried out the drill by then and evacuated everyone from the facility,” he added.
When asked what the risks are of storing expired ammunition, the senior officer said that it was as dangerous as having other explosives.
“In any case, having large or excess stocks of ammunition is very dangerous. That is why we asked that the expired stocks be dumped at sea, which we used to do earlier. But as environmentalists raised concerns, we had to stop it. However, while accepting that there was a significant environmental impact, we did point out that compared to the danger in maintaining such large expired stocks, the threat to life and property was greater. Hence we appealed to the environmentalists again, as we do not have the land area in the country to dispose of these stocks. The commander even asked for foreign assistance, as he foresaw the impending danger,” said the officer.
When transporting and storing ammunition, specific requirements given with them and their expiry dates must also be taken into account. Accordingly, a reliable ammunition safety management regime is an essential component of effective Physical Security and Stockpile Management (PSSM) to prevent both accidents and diversion. Every month, about two to three explosions of ammunition storages are recorded around the world, and they are more frequent now.
There are seven major issues to be dealt with from a security perspective of human when managing ammunition and related matters: dealing with unmanaged and dangerous stockpiles, placing ammunition in or near populated centres, keeping expired and surplus ammunition, inadequate storage infrastructure and poor storekeeping, planning absent lifecycle and reinforcing controls over stocks, handling unaccountable leadership and unqualified personnel and, in some cases, keeping abandoned and unexploded ordnance amongst serviceable stock. To avoid these instances are of great significance, but sometimes not much attention is focused on them.
Ammunition in any form or state is never completely safe. Explosives are combinations of chemicals, and the chance of them reacting with each other is always prevalent. Depending on the level of exposure to environmental conditions, these chemical processes can either slow down or get sped up. Regardless of the design of conventional ammunition, triggering and initiating them is done with simple mechanical-chemical or electric-chemical systems. By neglecting the basic requirements for safekeeping, related explosions can occur, and thei number increases over time. Badly kept ammunition will accidentally explode one day or fail to function as designed. And it will be more expensive to get rid of them because increased care and safety measures have to be applied throughout the disposal operations of such ammunitions.